Why the Deep South doesn't trust Mitt Romney

David Usborne tests the mood in Louisiana, venue of the Republican race's next primary, and finds a party at war

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The Independent US

Did you hear about the contest going on here this weekend, involving a bunch of variously self-deluded men with ripe senses of theatre and more voice than sense? It is literally about who can shout the loudest. Dumber still, they must all utter the same single word. Rest assured, though, souls will be touched.

The word is "Stella". The bellowing of it in Jackson Square will mark the climax of the annual Tennessee Williams festival. Never mind the other competition going on, which is not connected to New Orleans's most beloved literary son or any of its still rattling streetcars called Desire or otherwise. The candidates in that one are travelling the state yelling "Me!" or, if not that, "conservative", "constitution" or, above all, "Etch a Sketch".

If the French Quarter and the rest of Louisiana are preoccupied with different things, it will not be for the first time. While the one has fine, liberal leanings, the other does not. This state has in recent decades become about as reliably conservative as any in the Union. Thus, it will be an interesting proving ground for those other loud-mouthed gentlemen looking for glory – the runners for the Republican presidential nomination.

That is particularly so, explains Robert Couhig, a big Republican donor and a two-time New Orleans mayoral candidate, because most of the subsets of the party grassroots are in the state. Roughly speaking, economic-minded Republicans are around the "Big Easy", small-government libertarians are in the South-West, while folk in the north identify with Deep South neighbours like Alabama and Mississippi.

"This will be a good way to test the candidates and how they do with each of them," he explains over coffee, high up in a New Orleans tower overlooking the Mississippi, a river with about as much mud and as many turns as the nomination race itself. He has voted early for Newt Gingrich but, like the opinion polls, he thinks Rick Santorum will prevail when the ballots are tallied tonight.

Mr Couhig is not among Republican bigwigs despairing of the nomination race. Should it turn out that Mitt Romney, the clear leader at this point, does not amass the number of delegates he needs to claim the nomination at the party convention in August, then let the brokered convention begin, he says. "I think it would be the most exciting time to be a Republican! The whole country would be watching."

To travel on the trail here with Mr Santorum, the former Senator from Pennsylvania, is to forget that his candidacy is close to the edge of extinction, even if it is not quite as threatened as the other two runners, Mr Gingrich and Ron Paul. Mathematically, he is stymied. Mr Romney, who took the Illinois primary on Tuesday, now has half of the delegates needed to win. Mr Santorum is far behind and has almost zero opportunity now to catch up. Disconsolate, however, he is not.

"This is an opportunity for us conservatives" – there's that word – "to speak loudly," he declares to passionate applause in a packed wedding banqueting hall in Mandeville, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. "We don't want a moderate to run this nation!" he adds, referring, of course, to Mr Romney.

Mr Santorum may have a chance at least to stop Mr Romney reaching the magic number of 1,144 delegates before the convention in Tampa, Florida, begins. Maybe that is all he wants – to be a spoiler. A brokered convention may not choose him, but it wouldn't pick the moderate either. (To Mr Couhig it would mean the party turning to Chris Christie, the bulldog Governor of New Jersey.) It just might happen if he can ignite a wider fire than he has managed so far. Louisiana would be a good place to begin.

Team Romney and the aforementioned toy are giving him some help. This is the gaffe committed by a senior aide saying on CNN that Mr Romney would be free to "re-set" his campaign after the primaries were over, and offering the image of Mr Romney flipping over an Etch a Sketch to erase all that was on it before. It was seized on by Mr Santorum, who says it means Mr Romney will tack back to the centre in the general election. He has gleefully carried a bright red Etch a Sketch everywhere he has gone in Louisiana.

Two things are working for Mr Santorum: his own campaigning skills and the distrust of Mr Romney among conservatives. For Charles Wimberly, 75, of Mandeville, who grew up "dirt poor" but made a fortune servicing oil rigs, the problem with Mr Romney is one of elitism. "He was a businessman, but at a very high level all his life," he says. "I don't think he has the ability to look down and understand all those people working at the lower levels, the middle class folk." He also hints at friends who have told him they dislike Mr Romney's Mormon faith.

That you could find in the wedding hall too. Certainly, it is the case for Addison Ellis, a Tea Party organiser who is retired from a pipeline company. Mr Romney's religion gives him "pause", he says. "They worship behind closed doors. You can't go in. You can't hear what their preacher is saying and you can't hear what the congregation is saying back. I just don't know what they really believe."

Last year, history was made at the Stella shout-out – a woman won. The Republican race is an all-boy affair, but who knows who might emerge at a brokered convention. Sarah Palin hovers. Another whose name you hear whispered is Susana Martinez, the Governor of New Mexico. It doesn't hurt that she is Hispanic, too.

How Etch A Sketch shook up politics – and business

The company behind the Etch A Sketch drawing toy that earned a starring role in the Republican nomination race this week saw its shares rocket as traders eyed the boost from all the free publicity.

The Ohio Art Company's stock is up by about 100 per cent since Wednesday, when an adviser to Mitt Romney mentioned the toy in a CNN interview. Eric Fehrnstorm was asked if Mr Romney's attempt to court conservative Republicans might dent his appeal to more moderate voters who are key in the fight against President Obama. Not so, replied Mr Fehrnstorm: "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again."

The other candidates jumped on the remark, saying the toy perfectly reflected what they say is Mr Romney's habit of veering from liberal to conservative.